How are you standing on the ground? As I think of my fellow directors, I’m asking that question. As I talk with my collaborators on Zoom, as I walk around my neighborhood, as I lie next to my partner at night. How are you standing on the ground? I wonder: Do you know you’re still standing?
I spent the last three years in an MFA program at Arizona State University, where I focused on directing and trauma-responsive rehearsal practice. I come to trauma work through school but also through my own experiences as a survivor. When I talk about trauma, I’m referring to any experience or set of experiences that leave you feeling overwhelmed, scared, helpless, or deeply unsafe. Statistics show that an estimated 90 percent of the world’s population will be exposed to a traumatic event over the course of their lives, and with the current pandemic I would argue that that number is now even higher. If someone belongs to a historically marginalized group, such as identifying as a Black, Indigenous, person of color (BIPOC), LGBTQ+ member, woman, individual with a disability, or several of these categories together, the statistical likelihood of experiencing trauma only intensifies.
We theatre artists carry our bodies, stories, and historical legacies into our rehearsal rooms. I believe that it’s time for our work to be judged not only by the beauty of the product but also by the strength of the process. Trauma-responsive work is not just for “tough material,” it’s for everyone. Why do we need a trauma-responsive rehearsal process? Because, simply put, we cannot afford to not have one.
Last spring, right as COVID hit, I finished my thesis: “Rocks in the Riverbed: Building a Trauma-Responsive Workbook for Theatre Practitioners.” The river in the title refers to the idea of acceptance of the pervasiveness and reality of trauma. A river is unstoppable and constantly changing—like trauma—so trauma-responsive rehearsal tools must be both flexible and sturdy, while also holding space for complexity to flow. There are no easy answers for directors seeking to build trauma-responsive rehearsal spaces and yet we, as leaders and facilitators, can set our compass towards a safer direction. As we continue to gather virtually and, eventually, in person, how can we work together to co-create trauma-responsive rehearsal spaces from a place of balance?
Trauma-Responsivity and the Four Rs
Trauma-responsivity is not a new field in the arts. Many have written about the physical and psychological effects of trauma in the field, offering helpful tools for response, like Nisha Sajnani’s “A Drama Therapist’s Perspective on Teaching Theatre in Times of Crisis” and Molly W. Schenck’s “Five Grounding Techniques to Cultivate Resilient Ensembles.” My approach to trauma takes a few factors for granted: trauma is stored in our bodies, heart, and minds; is ever-present; and is born through both personal and collective experience. Healing trauma does not happen alone but through relationship and in community. Trauma-responsivity is also an orientation of working—a process—not an easy solution.
“Trauma-informed,” “trauma-responsive,” and “trauma-sensitive” are common terms. I find all of them useful in different contexts but am most drawn to David Treleaven’s collective approach to trauma through the four Rs in his book Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness. Originally from the United States National Center for Trauma-Informed Care, Treleaven explains that the four Rs are about realizing the wide impact of trauma and avenues of recovery, recognizing the signs of trauma amongst the communities we serve, responding by increasing trauma-responsivity in our policies and structures, and finally resisting re-traumatization to the best of our abilities. I choose the term “trauma-responsive” when building a rehearsal process as a director because of its focus on the action of responding, rather than choosing something like “trauma-informed,” which could imply a more passive or intellectual stance.
My hope is that the following questions, reflections, and commitments—organized around the four Rs of realizing, recognizing, responding, and resisting—can help other directors and facilitators in creating safer rehearsal rooms for their collaborators, both virtually and, eventually, in person.
Trauma-responsive work is not just for “tough material,” it’s for everyone.
First R: Realizing the Foundation–Transitioning Into Rehearsal
Reflect: Why are you building a trauma-responsive process in the first place? What are your goals? What are the desires and needs of the participants? Do you have a hope of meeting those needs?
How do you transition into rehearsal space? When working virtually, remember that Zoom time is not body time. By this I mean that pushing a button does not equal the same feeling of entering a physical space. We used to go to rehearsals by leaving our houses, walking to the train or car, ambling (or probably rushing) down the street and into the rehearsal space. Now we simply press a button and “enter.” Computers are not built at the time scale of our neural and digestive systems, the timescale of nature. For example: doctors tell us that digesting food fully takes between two to five days. While writing this I just jumped in and out of my Zoom room in under a minute. Reflect for yourself: How will body time be factored into the rehearsal process, especially transitioning into the space? Will eating be allowed? Will there be space for breath and breaks that support well-being? Will participants be encouraged to step outside, stretch, turn off their cameras, or look away from their screens?
Commit: Set your compass towards a trauma-responsive space. Make a commitment and articulate that commitment to your group both verbally and in writing while building your shared community agreements. Recently while working on Zoom, I have found splitting people into pairs in breakout rooms and working through a shared Google Doc to be helpful. Everyone works off of the same Google Doc but each pair answers a few key questions like: What do you need from the space to do your best work? What can you offer the space? How do you want to process conflict? I then ask each pair to come up with two working agreements based on their conversation to add to the document and then we come together as a whole group and report back. Once we have a finalized set of agreements, I ask everyone to sign their names in the Google Doc and then we read them out loud together to solidify them. I have also done this same process in person using small groups and a shared piece of butcher paper.
Try: Grounding into your actual space. Recently, I’ve been doing an exercise I call “object story” while rehearsing online, which involves everyone grounding physically into their space and then finding an object that has emotional resonance to bring back to their computer and share a story around. The object story was inspired by an exercise shared by Priya Parker on her podcast “Together Apart.”
It’s simple: Ask everyone in the shared virtual space to stand and plant their feet, close their eyes, and take two deep breaths. Then, everyone can open their eyes and take in the space around them as if for the first time—they can pretend they’re standing in a museum and everything around them has been carefully curated. Ask them to notice the colors (see if they can find any repeating colors), notice the textures (bumpy, smooth, jagged), notice the objects (large and small). Then, ask them to take a breath and begin to walk around their space, looking for an object that has a story, an emotional connection. It doesn’t have to be super scary or deep but it should be meaningful, something they’d be willing to share. Give them ten seconds to find that object and come back seated in front of their camera, and then everyone goes around and shares the story of their object.
The object story helps everyone remember that they have a body, to notice the space around them, and to relax and connect with others. Grounding and noticing the senses (touch, taste, smell, hearing, seeing) are particularly important for trauma-responsivity as they can help participants stay, in what Dr. Dan Siegel calls the “river of integration,” where participants can face the world feeling stable and energized instead of overwhelmed or paralyzed.
Trauma is stored in our bodies, heart, and minds; is ever-present; and is born through both personal and collective experience. Healing trauma does not happen alone but through relationship and in community.
Second R: Recognizing Through “Mind the Constellation”
Reflect: Who in the space is feeling strong today and who might need more support?
Commit: Recognize that you do not do this work alone and that you can work together to respond to the moment. When I was directing Finegan Kruckemeyer’s The Snow at Arizona State University, I developed a touchstone called “Mind the Constellation” that helped me notice, through our daily check-in process, who was feeling strong and who needed support (including myself) and how all the people present stepped forward or stepped back in response.
The idea of being aware of the “constellation” comes from celebrated insight meditation teacher Ruth King. In her work, King talks often about how BIPOC practitioners tend to see the systemic view of issues and connect the dots (the constellation), whereas White people tend to focus on individual racial experience (the stars) and thus miss out on exploring themselves as racialized beings. After listening to one of her talks, I was sitting in rehearsal during our check-in process. I was struggling that day and several of the actors shared they were also struggling. Then one performer began talking about how she loved taking pictures of clouds to note beauty in the world. As she spoke, I remembered that recently this same actor had been struggling and here she was, radiating joy.
All at once it hit me: not everyone has a bad day on the same day; our relationships to trauma and to one another are constantly changing. “Mind the constellation,” I thought, and the phrase soon became a touchstone for me to articulate shifting energy dynamics on a day-to-day basis, including both systems of oppression and individual body rhythms.
I like the term because it connotes vast forces beyond our control—systems and individual energy streams. The constellation cannot be controlled but it can be recognized. This recognition is key to responding to trauma more effectively: instead of as an individual director catering to each person’s needs, the response can come from everyone in the space—the collective—each bringing their diverse strengths. The phrase is also about paying attention to the full picture: trauma-responsivity includes attention to trauma but also to joy. If we don’t stop and look for the moments of joy in our rehearsals, we might miss them entirely.
Third R: Responding Through Opt-Out Space
Reflect: How does this process include invitation and the right to exit?
Commit: Every tool, ideally, is an invitation. It’s important to articulate that although the director holds power in a rehearsal room, that doesn’t mean they have the sole capacity to “offer space.” Rather, a director can make an actor aware of the right they already have to space and agency, and encourage them to exercise that right.
In the middle of writing this article, I found out that my oldest brother passed away unexpectedly. In the time since, I have felt firsthand the difference between facilitators who can meet where I am with equanimity versus those where it feels like I’m “ruining their plan” by having feelings. The difference for me is between still feeling part of the collaboration container and cared for versus being pushed outside or, worse, made to feel like I have to perform happiness in order to make the facilitator feel comfortable. This practice reminds me how important the idea of invitation and being able to “pass” or step out of a rehearsal space is to a trauma-responsive process. Every collaborator always has the right to exercise their ability for self-care by opting out. Responding to trauma must include the right to exit.
Try: Build an opt-out space. When directing The Snow, my stage management team and I created an opt-out space. My friend and fellow trauma-responsive director Alexis A. Green taught me to call this space “the cozy corner.” The cozy corner for The Snow had snacks, a tea kettle, some coffee mugs, and a couch with blankets. I also brought in a tin with a shell, a rock, an essential oils kit, silly putty, and an electric back massager. The space was always available for anyone to step out to regroup at any point during the rehearsal process.
When working on Zoom more recently, our stage manager opened a breakout room at the beginning of rehearsal as a green room for actors to join if they weren’t currently working. What if we encouraged artists to set up opt-out spaces to help support themselves? Because in online rehearsals everyone is in their own home, can these spaces be even more tailored to support each person’s diverse needs? What would preparing virtual opt-out spaces look like? Would we need whole spaces or maybe just an object to help ground ourselves?
Every collaborator always has the right to exercise their ability for self-care by opting out. Responding to trauma must include the right to exit.
Fourth R: Resisting Re-Traumatization Through Refilling Your Cup
Reflect: How am I, the director or facilitator, staying resourced?
Commit: It is essential that directors and facilitators stay resourced so they can help create a space that allows others to stay grounded and well. I live in the desert but I grew up in the prairies of Chicago. I learned early after moving out here to carry my water bottle with me everywhere: the grocery store, the bank, the post office. Not enough water on that hike? The desert teaches me that you don’t make it back. As a director, particularly if you’re also a survivor of trauma, what are you doing to care for yourself as you lead others? Especially as you head into tech rehearsals or high-pressure deadlines (and under the current pandemic), it’s essential to remember: The world is burning. Don’t leave water behind.
I advocate for “refilling your own cup” and the process of self-care. I think we don’t always talk about self-care because it feels vulnerable and “uncool.” For me, the act is more about compassion and a connection to others than about isolation and privilege. When I say self-care, I am not talking about spas and nail salons (although I hope to get a pedicure again someday), I am talking about what Layla F. Saad describes in her book Me and White Supremacy as: “Doing what you need to stay grounded in yourself, connected to your body, and emotionally well.”
I am talking about practices that were cultivated and developed during the civil rights movement and the women’s liberation movement, as well as by the Black Panther Party and others, in order to maintain emotional resilience for enduring revolution. (Writer Aisha Harris talks about this some more in her article “A History of Self-Care”). I am talking about the ancient art of compassion. Can you feel your feet underneath you? Can you feel your breath? Can you hold your own hand? And, after you refilled your cup: How are you able to support others from a place of renewed strength and balance?
Try: Remember the grounding exercise from earlier? This is a good opportunity to do that again, this time, with no one else watching.
I invite you to sit up a little bit and feel your feet underneath you, feel contact with the ground or chair. As you read here, close your eyes or soften them downwards. Breathe in and out fully three times noting silently to yourself on the inhale “let” and on the exhale “go.” Go on. Three times. Breathe in and say “let,” breathe out and say “go.” Notice if anything has shifted.
Another option is to look away from your screen for a moment. Take a deep breath in and out. You have thirty seconds to think of an act of self-care that would serve you right now—it could be meditating, grabbing a bite to eat, stepping outside, drawing a doodle, playing a favorite song, or simply lying down. Set a timer for five minutes and let yourself fully experience that time.
Look to the Future
In a trauma-responsive rehearsal process, remember to listen deeply to your theatre collaborators—to look for the hidden (or obvious) burdens they may be carrying. Remember the four Rs of realize, recognize, respond, and resist. I see a trauma-responsive rehearsal process as part of a multilayered movement to fully embrace equity and justice in theatre led by We See You White American Theater and many others. What if future theatre directors and rehearsal processes were looked to as models of trauma-responsive work instead of dangerous examples?
There is no going back post 2020—there is only carving a new path forward together. Try some of these elements: the object story, opt-out space, mind the constellation, then reflect, remix, and try again. Don’t let this design be static. We’re standing in a riverbed; the water is flowing. I want to know: What are the connections you see and want to see between your work and trauma-responsivity? What ideas do you think I’ve missed and where do you want to see more?